Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Jay Wright: Music's Mask and Measure

Music's Mask and Measure, Jay Wright (Flood Editions, 2007)


I remember listening to the Zero Mostelish Harold Bloom pontificate away on some DC-area talk radio show (Diane Rehm?) a million years ago – it must have been in support of The Western Canon, perhaps his last book to show any trace of critical intellect. Even then, of course, he was deep into his Stanislavskian imitation of Samuel Johnson & was heading full speed into his current mode of "quote-and-dote" (Terry Eagleton's term) "criticism." But as he launched into a bitter (& frankly tired) assault on the "schools of resentment," I had one of those stopped-clock-tells-the-right-time-at-least-twice-a-day moments: yes, I found myself agreeing, Jay Wright is an incredibly good poet, and there aren't nearly enough people saying so.

Music's Mask and Measure is perhaps the most spare book of Wright's I've read. A series of short – mostly 5- and 6-line pieces disposed over 5 "equations," largely bare of proper names or specifiable reference. It's clear these are poems about music, and poems about dance: the "mask" is both a carnivalesque concealment & a stately entertainment. The "equations," tho the drawings that head each section gesture towards African petroglyphs, would seem to refer back to Pythagorean number/musical lore. But what's the use? – I can't honestly say precisely what these poems are "about" (other than their own stately, nimble music), or what they "say" (other than their own stately, nimble music). Their syntax is simple, straightforward, their vocabulary precise & only occasionally recondite; but their reference is so oblique, so attenuated, that this bear of very little brain finds himself much at sea. Which is ultimately quite alright: it's the careful, sturdy, & surprising music that carries these poems past the point of mystery into a place of restrained & refined jouissance, or the moment just before, prolonged thru 50-odd pages of measured lyricism.


Joseph said...

For what its worth, thought I'd pass on my own attempt of a take on where Wright is coming from. I've admired his work for many years, and I think the most recent work is some of the best. There were two books brought out by Dalkey Archive that I haven't et gotten to. An inspiring body of work.

Vance Maverick said...

Thanks for this pointer. Something quite distinctive.